Holly was finally ready to open the door. She laid a hand on the knob and turned it clockwise.
The door stopped flashing. For the ten millennia she’d stood before it, its fickle surface had appeared as steel, water, sky…now it settled into an iron set of bars, like the entrance to a jail cell. Holly pushed forward and stepped through.
The area within was open and spacious. Large clay tiles coated the floor. Paintings and plants were arranged throughout. A warm glow suffused the air, courtesy of recessed lighting in the smooth white ceiling. A soothing trickle caressed her ears; it came from a miniature waterfall built into the wall.
Her memories solidified, tentative at first, then with a growing sense of sureness and certainty. She was Holly fucking Dent. A teen-queen cheerleader, destined to rule through will alone. She would gain entrance to an Ivy League school, become a CEO in record time, transition quickly into national politics, and win the presidency. Not for power, but purely as a trophy. To show her enemies she could do what she wanted, be who she wanted, and fuck anyone who didn’t agree because she was Holly Fucking De—
The center of the room came into focus. There were two wooden chairs facing across from each other, a round coffee table situated between them. The rightmost chair contained a white-haired man, dressed in elegant, fantasy-style clothing. A tasteful mix of flowing grays and muted whites, like something made for a dorky-ass Elf from Lord of the Rings. His right leg was folded over his left—a “smart man’s” sitting posture. Under other circumstances, Holly would have thought this effeminate and weak, but somehow, he still seemed masculine.
“Please,” he repeated. “Sit.” He extended a hand toward the other chair.
She sat slowly, looking cautiously from side to side. Her guarded manner elicited a chuckle.
“This isn’t a trap.”
“How would I know?” she countered.
“You wouldn’t.” He shrugged. “You have to have faith.”
Holly snorted. “I have faith in myself, motherfucker.”
The stranger sighed. “I’m pretty sure I know what you’ll do, but nevertheless, I’m under obligation to give you a choice.”
“Yeah?” Holly became dimly aware of her body growing younger; she was no longer a withered old man; she was the dangerous barbarian-king she’d first inhabited. “Maybe that’s backwards; maybe I give you a choice.”
The stranger arched an eyebrow. “Which is?”
“Whether or not you keep your limbs.”
The stranger sounded a little sad. “Just what I expected.”
“You have something I want.” Holly gave him a menacing stare.
“That I do.” The stranger regarded her with a dispassionate gaze.
“Give it to me. Or I swear to Christ I’ll—”
The stranger laughed. “That’s the last person you should swear to; she’s on my side, you know.”
Holly scoffed. “ ‘She?’ Maybe you haven’t heard, but the greatest scammer in all of history is packing meat between his le—”
“It’s She.” He flapped his hand. “Another story for another time.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Who are you?”
A puff of air blew through his nose—not quite a laugh, but almost.